Spotlight on Innovation: Bottling Afro-Caribbean Tradition with Sorel
Brooklyn-based Sorel is a shelf-stable version of sorrel, a traditional, hibiscus-infused red drink of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora
Sorel Liqueur stands out in a crowd, and not just because of its vibrant red color. “There’s nothing else like this in the market,” founder Jack Summers explains of the hibiscus-infused liqueur, which has ranked among the top 150 liqueurs, cordials, and schnapps on Drizly over the past 12 months.
Introduced on Drizly in 2022, Sorel is the first shelf-stable version of sorrel, a hibiscus- and spice-infused Afro-Caribbean drink traditionally spiked with rum. With roots in West Africa, recipes for the drink have been passed down for centuries. As the spice and slave trades spread across the Caribbean, each locality and family developed a unique mix based on local ingredients.
“The beautiful thing about Sorel is it’s not about me,” says Summers. “It’s a story that’s been going on for centuries. I am the custodian of this story for this generation. And it’s only my job to make sure the story continues to be told after I’m gone.”
As conscious consumption and wellness continue to motivate consumers, stocking brands with strong historical and cultural connections help push the drinks industry toward a more equitable future for us all. And, it can even boost the bottom line – the number of Black-owned brands on Drizly grew 15 percent in 2022, and consumers are continuing to actively seek out products crafted by and paying homage to a more diverse set of cultures.
“Retailers should take the time to get to know brands like Sorel and the stories behind their creation,” says Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights. “Then they can help share those stories with consumers.”
Though liqueurs and cordials make up a relatively small overall share on Drizly, 5.5 percent, unique beverages like Sorel are making an impact in the category. Traditionally dominated by big brands, Summers believes consumers are eager for a shift – and that we can all benefit from showcasing small, culturally driven brands.
“We’re offering an opportunity to not only drink something delicious, but to be part of a larger narrative,” he says. “When people connect emotionally to a brand, it makes all of the difference.”
BevAlc Insights sat down with Summers to discover how Sorel differentiates itself from the big-brand competition, and how we can better support culture- and history-driven brands.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
BevAlc Insights: Hibiscus-infused drinks have been part of Afro-Caribbean culture for centuries. Why do you think versions of sorrel weren’t on shelves until now?
Jack Summers (JS), founder of Sorel: There’s science and money and systemic disenfranchisement involved. There has been a centuries-long campaign of cultural erasure for people of Afro-Caribbean descent. So there hasn’t been any value placed on the things that we use to self-identify. And this drink is one of those things.
Another problem is access to capital. In order to launch a liquor brand, you need money. And generally speaking, Black and brown founders are capitalized at one-tenth of the rate of non-Black founders. The last part is there’s real science involved. It took 623 failures in my kitchen to get to the shelf-stable version of Sorel that’s out there today.
Facing all of that, how did Sorel manage to gain traction and popularity so quickly?
JS: We are very much following the Uncle Nearest Whiskey model, which is based on three pillars: earned media, public visibility, and points of distribution.
We are heavily vested in public awareness, so we’re doing events around the country every single weekend. We’ve got trucks rolling around that have skins of our brand on them. We’ve got a very strong social media presence and we’re doing a pretty specific targeted social media ad campaign. So we’re very dedicated to letting people know that we exist. And we have teams in all of our cities that are out there every single day securing new points of distribution.
Uncle Nearest carved the path which we can’t follow exactly, but our paths can rhyme – we can tweak what they did to work for us.
What does Sorel do differently than its peers on the market?
JS: Here’s a problem that no one talks about: Alcohol does not taste good, and human beings have been trying to solve the problem of how to make alcohol taste better so they can enjoy the effects of it for thousands of years. Big liquor solves this problem by starting off with alcohol and adding flavors, which is how we got cinnamon-flavored whiskey, habanero-flavored tequila, and blueberry-flavored vodka.
Our methodology reverses that logic. They’re starting off with alcohol and adding flavor. We start with flavor and we add alcohol. And that, I believe, is a movement that is going to continue to grow for us. The alcohol component is not the most important part. It’s a delivery method for flavor and not the reverse.
Sorel is botanicals and sugar and alcohol, and only that! It’s just a matter of skillfully taking things that the earth gave us and recombining them back into something delicious.
What has the response been like from others who grew up drinking the homemade version of Sorel?
JS: Once people realize that this is for the culture, then there’s full embracement. We have received a significant amount of media attention, both from the press and the awards community. And every time Sorel wins, the entire Afro-Caribbean diaspora wins. So they are lining up behind us as we realize that we win together. None of us wins alone.
What have you learned from taking a historic drink to market?
JS: I learned that all of our stories are worth telling in our own words. Sorel is 500 years of joy and persistence in a bottle. There are many, many other beverages out there like that which have terrific cultural significance to a theoretically small ethnic group. And all of those stories deserve to be told and they deserve to be told in our own words. And the people who own these stories deserve remuneration for it as well. We want, and should be able, to tell our stories and be adequately compensated.
What advice would you share with other drinks innovators who want to bring their culture to market in liquid form?
JS: You have to lean into your culture. You really do. And to do that, you have to know what your culture is. For me, it was a simple thing. All of my grandparents came from the Caribbean in the 1920s. They landed in Harlem, New York. But this country has people from all over the world that are present, and all of them have delicacies from their homes that could be turned into products if they were so inclined. So I would say if grandma’s got a recipe that you think could go into a bottle, go ahead and honor grandma by figuring out how to make it into a product. And do it in a way that not only honors the tradition, but honors the values of the community.
I think the most important part is not to let the business interfere with your values – like know what your values are before you get into this. And for us at Sorel, one KPI is being able to move cases and look at ourselves in the mirror at night.
What do you wish more retailers or wholesalers knew or understood about brands like Sorrel?
JS: I wish more retailers and wholesalers understood that just because we don’t have the capital to compete like some of the larger brands do, it does not mean we are any less of a quality product. Sorel won gold or better 40 times last year alone in international spirits competitions. For me, that’s always relevant because I know that we’re competing against brands that have literally billions of dollars to play with in research and development. Give us a chance and we will make money for you.